The recent succession of terrorist attacks upsetting what was once known as the first world, most notably the onset against the headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the dramatic hostage taking in Ottawa, have substantially turned the public eye’s spotlight on the extremist threat in the West. It happened in a manner comparable to the more lethal and vivid massacre of the Twin Towers, whose sad exceptionality, however, still makes it an unprecedented occurrence.
The imposition of the self-styled Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Da’ish, using its Arabic acronym, as an alleged catalyst of the jihadist galaxy must not mislead, as the extremist circles of radical Islam have very few points in common except for the evergreen fight against the heterogeneous category of those deemed apostates.
First, should be debunked the as persistent as simplistic myth that this ‘war on terror’ is being fought between a civilized West and a wider Islamic community, a belief that is somewhat rooted in Europe’s ultra-nationalist right-wing parties. From an etymological point of view, using the term ‘Islamic community’ itself implies two serious errors: first, that the roughly 1.6 billion Muslims spread around the world all belong to a unique tradition; secondly, that they can be cataloged according to criteria that the former group of industrialized countries applies on the basis of its own, age-old culture.
Self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri), in the wake of the resounding success achieved by the group of which he is both spiritual and military guide in the Syrian-Iraqi chaos, had the acumen to launch a new terror brand which has been used by last-minute followers in Libya and Tunisia (Ansar al-Sharia), central Africa (Boko Haram), Philippines (BIFF), Southeast Asia (Jemaah Islamiah), the Gaza Strip (Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen), and Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as numerous individuals in the Russian Caucasus and elsewhere in the world.
Unlike the days of al-Qaeda, when Osama bin Laden’s main target was the ‘Satan in stars and stripes’ and there wasn’t any particular territorial ambition, the foundation of a formally autonomous state in Siraq, in a seemingly anachronistic desire to repeat the medieval experience of the Islamic caliphate, has conferred both authority and world fame to ISIS, which can now count on a vast audience of virtual emulators, primarily, and affiliates, which is much broader than al-Qaeda‘s. However, although al-Baghdadi’s claims of invincibility, Da’ish has recently clashed against a reality of strenuous peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army, aided by the US-led international coalition. These factors have made the Salafi group de facto an ‘Armada vencible’, with unpredictable effects on the global impact of an inevitable backdown.
Despite ISIS’s effective media propaganda, the primary targets of jihadism are not Westerners, hit to a greatly lesser extent. In fact, first on Middle Eastern terrorists’ blacklist are a number of Sunnis, including the ambiguous Saudi monarchy, and Shiites, ça va sans dire (latest massacre against Shia mosques in Sanaa alone is sufficient testimony). The reason of this latter religious hatred is to be found in the bitter aversion against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which exerts a major influence on the countries of the area and has tacitly contributed to the discrimination of Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq. Given the preliminary agreement on the Iranian nuclear energy which was recently reached in Lausanne by the P5+1 (including China, the U.S., France, the U.K., the Russian Federation, plus Germany) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, this hatred is likely to grow and climate could heat up further.
Then is another, smaller, rivalry within the Sunni camp between Riyadh and nearby Doha, guilty of being the main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose attempt of political Islam was abruptly interrupted by Colonel el-Sisi in Egypt. Anyway, the fact that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to stop Houthis’ advance in southern Yemen should not seem strange. It is, indeed, a normal exercise of realpolitik in an area of the world where, insofar as idealistic, one must always be ready to make a deal with the devil.
Yet another striking example of the framework’s complexity is evidenced by the lethal acrimony within the ranks of Salafism, one for all the conflict between the aforementioned IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, with the bloody civil war in Syria on the background. Though both groups are Sunni and committed to the removal of Shiite Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, the latter is a branch of al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is regarded by ISIS as a “traitor”. However, the status quo could suffer a considerable change if some rumors recently leaked by the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat prove not baseless. In fact, according to Aimen Dean, a founder member of al-Qaeda and spy for Britain’s intelligence, the 64-year-old Egyptian lawyer is taking into serious consideration a dissolution of his network, thus leaving free choice to affiliated groups. If confirmed, this would herald either a tremendous terrorist coalition or a simple observation of reality, currently resizing al Qaeda to a secondary role globally.
A few miles to the west, jihadism takes an anti-government dimension in Central Africa, where Boko Haram has undertaken a bloody battle not only against the Goodluck Jonathan-led Nigerian government (and predictably against newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari, too), but has also dared to extend its area of operations to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The group’s hubris, however, has triggered a firm reaction on the part of the African Coalition forces, which are heavily downsizing Abubakar Shekau’s and his fellow soldiers’ ambitions, already responsible for numerous massacres against a mostly defenseless local population.
Differently from previous scenarios lies the West, part of the so-called Dar al-Harb, ie where the Muslim law (sharia) is not in force and never was (except Iberia’s al-Andalus). In much of the northern hemisphere the primary threat is thus posed by sporadic attacks by ‘lone wolves’, the fear of whom in Europe, along with a weak recovery from a devastating economic crisis, has the side effect of helping to worsen the already thin threshold of tolerance towards allogeneic elements.
However, in the wake of what was already experienced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this may turn out to be a unique opportunity to establish a new kind of relationship among nations which would be otherwise on a collision course. First of all, the Russian Federation, which realistically might have similar problems in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. Furthermore, this could give rise to a closer cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, whose problems with extremist groups within the indigenous Uighur ethnic minority in the northeastern region of Xinjiang are there for all to see.
As already happened in the Middle East, where Iranians and Saudis have partially (and only in Syria and Iraq) buried their hatchets on the battlefield to fight Da’ish, so terrorism could hopefully backfire to its own proponents, providing a bit of lubricating oil for rusty relations among the world’s major powers.